I was in the room when one of my aunts asked my sister a strange question – she wondered if she had used a product to darken her gums, which are a deep purply brown colour. We looked at each other in confusion and brushed it off as one of the many weird questions we get asked by extended family members during our infrequent gatherings. However, upon further thought, her question consumed me. I found it interesting that something as insignificant to me as gums was of notice to others, and that such a small part of our body was also being held up to a standard of beauty that defies the Western ideal.
Evidently, the colour of a woman’s gums is something that is scrutinised in Somali culture, and the darker the better. As a black woman growing up in Europe, I have become well aware of how society expects my body to look, and this has been further fuelled by traditional and social media propagating these ideals for centuries. But I’ve come to realise that these standards are often in direct opposition to the beauty ideals that my Somali family grew up with back home.
As a child I remember hating the fact that I was hairier than my friends at school. While other girls in my class were virtually hairless, I couldn’t help but notice how a soft layer of fuzz blanketed my arms and legs. This bothered me to no end as I scoured the isles at my local shops trying to find the perfect product that could ensure the hair was gone. The hair growing on my arms, legs and back served as a constant reminder that my body did not fit into the very narrow definitions of female beauty in the West, and this has always been a source of insecurity for me. During one of the many frustrating conversations I had with my mum about how time and money consuming it is to shave, she told me that traditionally, Somali culture considers women who have hair on their bodies to be beautiful. This came as a surprise, since throughout my life I was made to believe that one strand of hair anywhere other than on your head deems you to be unwomanly.